Leave or Remain? Photo: TheDigitalArtist Leave or Remain? Photo: TheDigitalArtist

Corbyn must hold the line: Labour cannot become an official Remain Party, argues Mike Wayne

The pressure is building on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to commit Labour to becoming officially a Remain party. Last week, Labour Deputy cum Alternative Leader, Tom Watson gave another speech calling for Labour to back Remain unequivocally, and for good measure, echoing his ideological master T.B., calling for a referendum first before a General Election.

Senior Shadow Cabinet ministers such as Emily Thornberry, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the chief whip, Nick Brown, have all said that they would vote to remain in any future referendum. On Sunday, the Observer reported that 100 Labour councillors have written to Jeremy Corbyn calling on Labour to commit to an unequivocal policy of remaining in the EU, while more than 60 constituency parties have submitted motions to the party conference that starts on Saturday calling for the same.

One reason why Labour’s policy is framed by the media as a ‘fudge’ is because they equate clarity only with positions that adopt a hard (no-deal) Leave or hard Remain. The media and the politicians adopting these positions are contributing significantly to polarising opinion and baking in what amount to culture war divisions, rather than seeking a reasonable compromise on an issue that is secondary compared to the crucial issue of wealth redistribution.

But another reason why Labour’s position is described as lacking in clarity is because there is no shortage of people who claim to be supporters of Jeremy Corbyn who simply will not accept the leadership’s attempts to navigate the split in the Labour vote around the EU. Another Europe is Possible, founded by Michael Chessum, who describes himself as ‘hard left and hard remain’, can provide no sensible explanation as to how the EU’s deeply anti-democratic structures, with its powerless talking shop Parliament, can be reformed by staying within it. The reality is that the slogan ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit’ has modulated over time into ‘Love the EU, Corbyn…meh, not so much’. There has been no shortage of apparently pro-Corbyn commentators such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones, both writing in the organ of liberalism, the Guardian, calling for Labour to abandon any recognition that the 2016 Referendum was won by the Leave vote: that’s 17.4 million votes and one third of Labour voters who are basically being told: You Got It Wrong.

The liberal explanation for the 2016 result has studiously avoided addressing the economic inequalities of the neoliberal project they otherwise support. Popular alternative explanations for the Leave vote for liberals are: Leave voters are stupid; the Leave campaign told lies; the Russians/cyber Trumpers interfered with the vote through illicit social media campaigns and data harvesting.

The Lib-Dems meanwhile, who have miraculously escaped any blame from the pro-Remain camp for stoking the divisions that led to the Leave vote thanks to their Coalition support for Project Austerity (2010-2015), have now declared that they will cancel the vote completely and revoke Article 50. The gobsmacking anti-democratic arrogance of that position, which is neither very ‘liberal’ or democratic, is of course being applauded by the liberal press. But the liberal hegemony over the left is unfortunately evident in the extent to which anti-Corbyn forces have successfully used the EU as a wedge issue between Corbyn and his left base outside the Parliamentary Labour party and without which, he is finished.

Corbyn has already compromised at least twice. Initially Corbyn adopted a ‘jobs first Brexit’ before he was forced to keep a Second Referendum on the table at last year’s Labour party conference. Now the position is that Labour will negotiate a ‘credible deal’ and have that and Remain on the ballot of any future Referendum, which Labour has now accepted as necessary. These shifts reflect the reality of where Labour’s membership base is over EU membership with nearly 90% of them saying they would vote for Remain in any future referendum in a January 2019 survey.

But the wider base amongst Labour voters includes that one-third who voted to Leave, many of them in the northern constituencies that Boris Johnson is relentlessly targeting with his pre-election Northern tour (odd, given that he had suggested he didn’t have time to prepare his Queen’s speech and negotiate with the EU and have Parliament open). Labour would gift much of this vote to the Conservatives if it becomes a Remain party. It would make a mockery of its current compromise position to negotiate a ‘credible deal’ if it adopts an official Remain position. How could any deal it negotiates be credible with a Leave voter if the party has already officially adopted the opposing position? Once Labour becomes officially a Remain party then it will be forced to drop the option of negotiating a deal and it will edge closer to the Liberal Democrats two-fingered salute to the 2016 result.

Labour’s only hope of still appealing to people who feel that the EU has got a lot to do with their predicament, is to stay officially neutral on the question both now and in any future referendum (and here it would help if senior members of the shadow cabinet could for the time being keep their voting intentions in a future referendum private). This is the line that the Labour leadership must not cross. And it is the line which the Labour membership should stop trying to push the leadership across.